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Using personas to facilitate and iterate actor engagement

A method for circular cross-sectoral collaboration

Published onJun 21, 2023
Using personas to facilitate and iterate actor engagement
Anna Margolis1*, Fenna Blomsma1
1University of Hamburg, Faculty of Business, Economics and Social Sciences, Hamburg, Germany
* [email protected]


This paper proposes a method that supports facilitation and leadership in cross-sector collaboration for circular innovation (CXC). We build on the insight that individual perceptions play an important role in actor engagement but are less present in research on cross-sector partnerships. Our method is inspired by design thinking: We combine Q-methodology with ethnography to construct ‘actor personas’. The resulting insights can help to facilitate CXC by developing customised activities that contribute to actor engagement. The method will be applied in cross-sectoral collaboration projects that aim to increase sustainability and circularity.

Extended abstract

Systemic, cross-sectoral collaboration is a key prerequisite to scaling sustainable and circular business models (Pedersen et al., 2020; Blomsma & Bauwens et al., 2022). The main goals of such a collaboration are value creation, distribution and capture (Oskam, Bossink and de Man, 2021). Actor engagement, defined as the disposition of actors to engage and their level of interaction, is a key contributor towards that goal (Storbacka et al., 2016). With that, generating and maintaining actor engagement becomes a critical task in leading a circular cross-sectoral collaboration (CXC) ((Brown et al., 2021; Kleine Jäger and Piscicelli, 2021). However, methods of generating and maintaining such engagement are still underexplored (ibid).

In this paper, we develop a method to generate and increase actor engagement in CXC by the means of building empathy and iterating engagement activities. We start from the ethnographic observation of an ongoing CXC. We observe that engagement among participants varies not only on the organisational but also on the individual level. I.e. members of the same organisation and team can express different levels of engagement. Subsequent literature analysis conveys that literature on cross-sector partnerships tends to focus on the organisational level (Clarke and Crane, 2018), whereas literature on actor engagement favours the individual level (Barrera Rodríguez, Duque Oliva and Vieira Salazar, 2022). Therefore, we propose, that infusing the individual perspective into the debate on CXC can contribute to illuminating the topic of actor engagement.

The objective is to develop a methodological approach that can answer the following research question:

How can we develop more customized approaches to actors in CXC that would allow to address individual concerns, increase engagement and enable co-creation?

The research setting is a cross-sector collaboration that looks at how to initiate, implement, and scale circular oriented innovation at the national level by the means of policy labs, entrepreneurial activity, and education. The project involves actors from government, business, associations, civil society, and academia. The project started in 2022 and lasts until 2025. Our role as researchers is twofold: On the one hand, we support the project coordinator in designing and testing interventions that help to move the project towards the desired goals. On the other hand, we observe the process to derive generalisable conclusions applicable to other CXC initiatives.

The research design starts from evidence in the starting phase (June – December 2022). Here, we observed that individual actors working within the same organisation still vary strongly in their focus of attention, identities, goals, and action schemas. Therefore, we proposed that a better understanding of individual actors within participating organisations can help the project coordinator to customise interventions and develop a more inclusive approach to innovation. For example, the most knowledgeable and engaged actors could be involved in co-creation and intervention design for their colleagues and become change champions (Herrero, 2008; Sharma et al., 2022).

An approach that can help to cluster actors according to their identities, goals, and action schemas is clustering actors as ‘personas’, a concept adapted from design thinking.  Personas describe clusters of individuals who share similar features framed as one specific person, which in turn helps designers and decision makers to develop empathy towards their customers (Lewrick, Link and Leifer, 2020). We extend the notion of personas to actors in CXC. With that, we assume that the organisational association is only one of many factors that will shape the predisposition and activities of the actors. Applying a persona analysis to actors can support the project coordinator in building empathy, facilitating engagement, and iterating activities.

To operationalise the persona analysis for actors, we combine Q-methodology and ethnography. Q-methodology offers a quantitative approach that does not require a high number of participants but allows clustering actors according to their personal perceptions  (Van Exel and De Graaf, 2005; Watts and Stenner, 2005). In design thinking terms, one cluster of actors represent a persona as they share overlapping perceptions. The resulting insights can help to facilitate CXC by developing customised activities that contribute to actor engagement of the different actor clusters (personas). For example, actors with a high level of engagement may be involved in co-creating communication and workshop materials, while actors with a low level of engagement may require additional engagement formats. Actors who resist the efforts could be confronted in individual meetings before inviting them to a collaborative event.

In study design, we define 30 – 40 statements on a specific issue that participants sort on a quantitative scale according to their individual perceptions. The statements in q-methodology can be defined based on existing theories, literature review, field observations, or a combination of these methods (Van Exel and De Graaf, 2005; Watts and Stenner, 2005). We use a combination of existing theory with field observation. Applying such a Q-sort procedure multiple times in the course of the project allows tracking ‘persona shifts’, i.e. how individual actors adapt their perceptions throughout the collaboration. The quantitative measurement is supported by ethnographic methods, including observations and interviews, which helps to get deeper insights into the change mechanisms. 

Design thinking has been widely researched in the context of innovation and customer experience. However, the design thinking mindset, process, and tools also present an opportunity in facilitating complex cross-sectoral change and raising actor engagement (Royal Society for Arts (RSA), 2017; UK Design Council, 2021). While this is somewhat acknowledged in practice, scientific evidence of that is only emerging (Jones and Kijima, 2018; Hoolohan and Browne, 2020). With that, applying our method in CXC can contribute to two streams of literature. First, it makes a contribution to research into CXC by adding an individual perspective on actor engagement. Second, it contributes to literature on the use of design thinking to facilitate organisational learning and systems change.


Circular collaboration, cross-sector partnerships, circular economy, systems design, personas


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